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Golden Compass, The Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 July 2008
ImageAfter the worldwide success of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and the ongoing success of the Harry Potter movies, , it’s no wonder movie studios have been pouncing on fantasy series novels, particularly those aimed at children.  New Line, who backed the Rings movies, got back into the game with the first of a initially proposed three films, based on Philip Pullman’s novels, grouped under the title “His Dark Materials” (though none of the books—so far—is called that; this one was “Northern Lights” in Pullman’s home country of England). 

The most significant difference between “The Golden Compass” and the Rings movies is that the Tolkien films were aimed at adults, though of course stuffed with the kinds of things children love (elves, dragons, wizards, etc.), while “The Golden Compass” is aimed more directly at children.  This probably cost it in terms of gaining adult fans, but children the world over—particularly little girls—are likely to go bananas for this big-scale adventure.  The movie was a boxoffice failure in the U.S.; though it did well overseas, evidently that wasn’t well enough to launch the other two movies.  That’s a pity.

This first in the series was written and directed by Chris Weitz (“American Pie,” “About a Boy”) who clearly has embraced this world and its denizens with enthusiasm and sincerity.  Being the planned first of a trilogy, “The Golden Compass” has an inconclusive ending, though it does have a satisfying climax, an all-out battle on a vast field of ice, pitting children, Gyptians (this world’s gypsies), a huge polar bear and flying witches against a well-armed force of Samoyeds.  (No, not fluffy white dogs.)  The lack of a thorough wrap-up may be what cost it American viewers.

It’s likely that very few go to movies like this because of the stories; instead, they go for the way the story is told, the spectacle and the cast; this is very strong in all three areas.

This is not our Earth; in a brief opening narration, and the action of the first half hour or so, Weitz clearly explains this world’s background.  It is an Earth, and the time is roughly now—but this world is very different.  It is ruled by a benign but all-powerful group called the Magisterium, which wants to control the lives of all citizens—they claim the do this in a “kindly” way, but there are those who disagree. There are legends of Altheiometers, which can tell its user the truth; the boogeymen of this world are Gobblers, who kidnap children; everyone is in awe of Svalbard, an island country near the Arctic Circle, ruled by intelligent, armor-clad polar bears known as the panserbjørne—human beings are in awe of them.

Everyone has a soul, but the soul is contained in a companion animal—we see many of them, from small birds to big spotted cats with heads like tigers and a body like a lion; these are called “daemons” (pr. demons), and are linked psychically to their human companions.  If the person is killed, or if the daemon is, the animal vanishes in a cloud of sparks.

This world’s technology is limited and much behind ours, though they do have huge flying machines, some like giant dirigibles, and powered carriages without obvious engines.  There are also paddle-wheel steamboats and, presumably, other conveyances as well.  The architectural style is as though the designer of St. Paul’s Cathedral had been given free reign to design nearly every building in London.  Some distance away is Jordan College, resembling Oxford and/or Cambridge; the college scenes were shot in Oxford, where Pullman attended college.

This is where 12-year-old Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) lives; she’s a free spirit, and has a great time with her best friend Roger (Ben Walker) and the livelier Billy Costa (Charlie Rowe), a Gyptian.  She’s an orphan, in the care of her adventurous scholar uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), a don at the college.  Hoping to made good on claims Billy’s skeptical about, Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon (voice of Freddie Highmore), Pan for short, hide in a cupboard.  (Pan is usually a ferret, but sometimes a bird, a housecat or a mouse; the daemons of children can change their shape; those of adults cannot)  She’s able to warn Asriel against poisoned wine, and listens from hiding while he describes a finding to the officials of the college: he is convinced that their universe is just one of an infinite number of parallel universes, and that the only bridge between them is a mystical substance known as Dust.  This has long been banned from their world, on orders of the Magisterium, but he’s convinced it has returned, up in the frozen Arctic, and wants to finance an expedition.  He’s sure he can find a bridge between the parallel universes.  Without money, he sets out on his own.  We see the highest lords of the Magisterium (Derek Jacobi, Christopher Lee, Edward de Souza) plotting to use Dust—and Asriel—to their own ends.

An emissary from her uncle presents Lyra with the only remaining Alethiometer (the rest were destroyed by the Magisterium), a device like a golden compass, that can tell its user the truth about almost anything, though the messages require interpretation.  To her surprise, Lyra ends up in the care of elegant, secretive Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman); at first, she greatly admires the beautiful woman, but soon realizes that Coulter is attempting to control her—and to find out just what she carries in her omnipresent bag.

Soon, Lyra and Pan are rescued by Gyptians, among them the parents of Billy, who has disappeared, along with many other children, including Roger.  We see they’re confined in comfortable quarters in the frozen north, but Lyra doesn’t know that yet.  She learns that Mrs. Coulter is allied with the Gobblers—in fact, she seems to run them—and that she’s in charge of a mysterious process called “intercision.”

Lyra escapes from Mrs. Coulter, and is befriended by Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott), a salty Texan of an aeronaut, waiting in an Arctic village for his flying machine to be repaired.  Amusingly, his daemon is a jackrabbit named Hester, given a wise and regional voice by Kathy Bates.  Knowing Lyra needs help, he directs her to Iorek Byrnison (voice of Ian McKellen), an armored bear without his armor (“a bear’s soul is his armor” he bitterly explains), working in a menial blacksmith job and drinking too much.  He was ousted from his tribe by a vicious opponent, and leads a life of shame.  Iorek is a great character—a huge, scarred polar bear who’s civilized and can talk, but is still a fierce warrior.  Iorek has the best lines in the movie, superbly delivered by McKellen: “I am an armored bear,” he explains.  “War is the sea I swim in.”  Often seen loping over the frozen land, Iorek is a magnificent creature.

And, Lyra learns, a fierce friend and ally.  She also briefly meets Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green), one of a group of nearly-immortal flying witches, who live apart from the rest of the world.  Both Iorek and Serafina will be useful as everything comes to a head in the frozen north.

Weitz skillfully leads us into this world, both like and unalike our own; he doles out information as we need it, and usually very thoroughly.  There are some weaknesses in this; it’s never entirely clear why the Magisterium wants to control everyone (in every parallel world, we eventually learn), or just what Dust is or what it does.  When Lyra uses the Golden Compass, we should see the three symbols (out of many on the device) she chooses as the basis of each question; instead the camera zooms instantly into the inner clockworkings of the Compass, and we see elements of the question and answer in indistinct clouds of Dust.

The movie is well-paced, though the pace occasionally falters; at 113 minutes, “The Golden Compass” is shorter than these fantasy epics have tended to be, but it feels like it lasts longer than that.  However, Weitz also introduces visual wonders and action scenes judiciously; there aren’t too many of the latter, but the two major battles are well-handled.  Especially impressive is when Iorek battles King Ragnar (voice of Ian McShane), the ruler of the panserbjørne, whose previous defeat of Iorek was the reason for his exile.  The camera swoops deliriously around the battling bears, whose fight is intense enough some kids will be hiding their eyes.  Parents: take note of the rating.  On the other hand, the bears are depicted as being so majestic, this movie could well give impetus to the burgeoning save-the-polar-bears movement.  (They are dying because of global warming.)

The movie is laden with special effects, primarily computer graphics; they are apparently under the overall control of Michael Fink and Susan MacLeod—the end credits feature a nearly endless list of names, of both people and companies.  The effects are generally splendid—the polar bears are particularly convincing, as are most of the aircraft, cities, towns and ice fields.  The daemons are a bit more problematic, particularly when they are very familiar creatures like house cats and backyard dogs.  We’re so familiar with these that it’s difficult to entirely buy into their depiction here.  The personalities help, but the cats and dogs don’t quite achieve satisfactory reality.  Nonetheless, “The Golden Compass” won the Oscar for visual effects.

The wide-screen photography  by Henry Braham is excellent; he hasn’t yet done many features, but while there’s nothing exceptionally imaginative in his work here, he’s professional and skilled.  The production design by Dennis Gassner is richly detailed and imaginative; he won an Oscar for his work on “Bugsy,” and did excellent work on “Barton Fink,” “The Truman Show,” “Road to Perdition” and “O Brother Where Art Thou?,” among other films.  He’s conjured up convincing, richly detailed and mostly handsome worlds; his work is discussed in detail in this double disc’s many featurettes.

One of the best aspects of “The Golden Compass” is the excellent score by Alexandre Desplat, seemingly chosen after careful thought, as he hasn’t done anything like this before.  Among his previous scores are “Girl with the Pearl Earring,” “The Upside of Anger,” “Hostage” and “Syriana.”  It took imagination to think of casting him for a lavish fantasy like this, and he delivers great work.

Amazingly, this is the first feature film for this young actress of the unusual name, Dakota Blue Richards.  She was already a fan of Philip Pullman’s novels when she saw a theatrical production based on one of them.  She decided then and there that she had to be Lyra—and she is, completely and impressively.  Another element in those featurettes is footage shot at the open-casting calls for actresses to play Lyra.  These British girls are funny, bright and likeable.  Even though Richards was only 13, this is an outstanding debut performance; she’s on screen most of the time and carries the film on her thin shoulders.  She’s especially good in her confrontation with bear king Ragnar; the plot requires her to try an especially dangerous gambit—and we completely believe that her character is tough and courageous enough to bring it off.  She’s likeable, intelligent and a true hero—they couldn’t have found a better actress for this role.

The same is true of Nicole Kidman; her Mrs. Coulter is the main villain of the piece, but she’s also intelligent and attractive—there’s more to her than just being the baddie here; Kidman makes her a rounded character.  Daniel Craig has relatively few scenes; he delivers some exposition at the beginning, then is seen later in the frozen wilderness, fighting warriors employed by the Magisterium.  His role was expected to expand in the sequels. 

Presumably so was Sam Elliott’s.  It’s a bit of a surprise to find a wal-howdy-podner Texan in a movie of this nature, but Elliott’s charm and easy way with a drawl makes him convincing.  He’s an old friend of Iorek Byrnison; we can easily imagine the long-haired, cowboy-hat-wearing Texan and the gruff bear having adventures together.  In fact, Pullman wrote a short novel about just that.

The movie ends, promising us a war yet to come.  I’d be surprised if this film isn’t a hit; I think it very likely that we’ll see parts II and III in the years ahead.  I was looking forward to them; the boxoffice failure of “The Golden Compass” dismayed and disappointed me.  I think this is better than “Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe;” it’s more fun, it’s more colorful and it tells a clearer story, centering on one character.  But money rules all in Hollywood, and the remainder of Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” novels will probably go unfilmed.

Here, however, is the DVD, this set in Blu-ray high definition.  It’s an excellent package, housed in a cardboard sleeve.  The documentaries are very detailed and thorough; most of them are fascinating to watch.  One drawback is that Chris Weitz’s commentary track appears twice, once on its own, once narrating the optional behind-the-scenes popup track.  That’s well enough done that they shouldn’t have included the commentary track on its own

On the second disc is a wealth of documentaries, with almost everyone connected with the film who made significant contributions getting to have their say—many of them several times.  First, author Philip Pullman, introduced carving a wooden horse, explains his reasons for writing the book.  We also hear from Chris Weitz, producer Deobray Fore, and Kim Raynolds, professor of Children’s Literature at Newcastle University.  Nicholas Tucker, who wrote a book on Pullman, also is seen, as well as Daniel Craig, Dakota Blue Richards, Ileen Maisel, Andrew Miano and Mark Ordesky.

Then its on to adapting the novel into the screenplay.  Weitz first wrote the script, then stepped aside as the producers considered directors.  They finally wisely returned to him.  Here, we also see Nicole Kidman.

“Finding Lyra Belacqva” is about the search for a teenage actress.  Evidently this search was genuine—often these are mere publicity stunts—and we see lots of the little starry-eyed girls who showed up for one of the auditions (in Cambridge).  Here, Dakota’s mother appears as well.

In “Daemons,” it’s the turn of the special effects crew.  Pullman and Witz are heard from again, but also effects supervisor Mike Fink (king of the river) and Bill Westonhofer of the L.A. effects company Rhythm & Hues.  There’s a fascinating, very detailed documentary on the creation of the Alethiometer, the Golden Compass itself.  In addition to some of the usual suspects (Pullman, Weitz), we here from production designer Dennis Gassner (who went to the same high school as Sam Elliott), who’s remarkably articulate, prop master Barry Gibbs, art director Richard Johnson and prop maker James Enright, among others.  The process of creating the Alethiometer—or several of them, as backups were needed—is fascinating.

There’s also a segment devoted to the production design; Chris Weitz and Gassner were trying to embody a “redundancy of detail,” to show how this world is powered by “anbaric” devices, a creation of Pullman similar to electricity. 

In all, there are eleven documentaries and many galleries of individual images, a segment on the score and on the release of the film, including three trailers.  “The Golden Compass” was a mammoth undertaking, an exceptionally good and beautiful movie that should have done better at the boxoffice.

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